We can all agree that the land known first as Canaan (Gen. 11:31) and later as Israel (1 Sam. 13:19) was spiritually significant in the time of the Old Testament. In Genesis 12:7, God promises to give Canaan to Abraham’s offspring, making it integral to God’s salvation plan. Once the Israelites had conquered the land, God himself dwelled there (1 Kings 8:10–13), and it became the venue for true worship (Deut. 12:4–6). What’s more, the land acted as a kind of spiritual litmus test indicating whether or not the Israelites had been faithful to God. If the Israelites lived rebelliously, the land itself would eject them (Lev. 20:22); if they were obedient, they would stay in the land (Deut. 28:11).
All this shows that the land of Israel was sacred during the Old Testament era. But what about today? Now that we live under the new covenant, God is worshiped “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem . . . but . . . in spirit and truth” (John 4:21–23), which means God-approved worship is no longer tied to one particular place. Should we conclude the land of Israel has lost all spiritual significance?
There are three ways in which the land of Israel remains spiritually significant today.
1. The land of Israel helps us to understand and believe the Word.
Imagine a freak geological event at the end of the first century had caused all the land west of the Arabian Desert, south of Lebanon, and north of the Sinai Peninsula to fall into the Mediterranean Sea, thereby eliminating Israel. In this alternate reality, we would have lost the observable detail that often helps us understand the Bible. For example, we know from observation that to pray for God to restore your fortunes “like streams in the Negev” (Ps. 126:4) is to pray for a remarkably swift onrush of divine blessing to transform your circumstances.
Year by year, the land delivers up new and exciting discoveries. This makes the land itself something that feeds our faith in God’s Word.
In addition, the land of Israel—the very soil itself—has acted as a depository for Bible-related artifacts. Archeological discoveries can strengthen our confidence in God’s Word by verifying the Bible’s version of events. Ancient manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls have also been found in the land, confirming the trustworthiness of existing biblical texts and shedding light on the relatively few cases where there’s uncertainty about the original text. Year by year, the land delivers up new and exciting discoveries. This makes the land itself something that feeds our faith in God’s Word.
2. The land of Israel is God’s ‘sample’ for the new creation.
Abraham was told that he, along with his offspring, would inherit Canaan (Gen. 13:15). But he was also told that the land would still belong to the Amorites at the time of his death and for centuries afterward (Gen. 15:13–16; see also Acts 7:5). Abraham put two and two together. He understood that he would only receive the land after he had died (Heb. 11:13).
Since God invited Abraham to contemplate the land that would belong to him (Gen. 13:17), we must conclude that Bronze-Age Canaan was a meaningful likeness of Abraham’s eternal inheritance. God was presenting Canaan to Abraham as a kind of tasting sample of what would come to him, like a small spoonful of ice cream offered to customers in an ice cream parlor. There are two ways in which this is still relevant today.
First, it’s noteworthy that God uses land as the likeness of Abraham’s future inheritance. God wanted Abraham to look down at the earth, not up at the sky. It often comes as a surprise to new Christians (and some old ones) that we will live forever on the earth rather than in the heavens. Genesis 13:17 can be listed alongside other verses pointing to the earthiness of eternal life (eg., Matt. 5:5; Rom. 8:19–23; Rev. 21:1–3).
Second, it’s also noteworthy that God uses Canaan as the likeness of Abraham’s inheritance. God knew Abraham would inherit the whole world (Rom. 4:13), and yet he singled out Canaan for Abraham to inspect. This suggests that Canaan—out of all lands—was the best possible representation of Abraham’s future inheritance.
That conclusion is supported by the descriptions of Canaan/Israel found elsewhere in the Bible. It is said to be “a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper” (Deut. 8:7–9); “a desirable land, the most beautiful inheritance of all the nations” (Jer. 3:19, CSB); and “the pleasant land” (Zech. 7:14).
Perhaps it’s overly romantic to think that the current land of Israel still serves as the best sample of our future dwelling place. The fallenness of the natural world seems to increase as time goes on (Gen. 47:9). And yet the fact remains that no other land is described in the Bible as “the most beautiful inheritance of all the nations.” Nowhere other than Israel can claim with as much biblical backing to be a taste of the world to come.
3. The land of Israel provides a home for God’s chosen people—the Jews.
In the New Testament, God’s chosen people are primarily all those, whether Jewish or Gentile, who have put their trust in Jesus. Peter writes with that understanding of chosenness when he says to the mainly Gentile Christians of Asia Minor, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). By using terminology previously reserved for Israel (see Ex. 19:5–6), Peter shows that chosenness is now offered to all people groups through faith in Jesus.
But that isn’t the New Testament’s last word on chosenness. In Romans 11:28, a verse about unbelieving ethnic Israelites, Paul says, “As regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” The word translated “election” comes from the same root as the word translated “chosen” elsewhere in the New Testament. So, unless we take scissors to Scripture, we must say that ethnic Israelites (in other words, the Jews) are still God’s chosen people—while recognizing that their chosenness does not save anyone without faith in Messiah Jesus.
Nowhere other than Israel can claim with as much biblical backing to be a taste of the world to come.
The Jewish people’s continuing chosenness gives ongoing spiritual significance to the land. If God had rejected the Jews, it would be theologically reasonable to expect him to take their land away from them forever, just as he did with Edom (Mal. 1:4). But since God hasn’t rejected them, it’s theologically reasonable—or even essential—to believe that the land given to them by God is still their inheritance. That’s the biblical logic that led Robert Murray M’Cheyne to anticipate in 1839, with astonishing foresight, that God would surely restore the Jewish people to their ancient homeland.
The argument of the preceding paragraph is not universally accepted among evangelicals. For example, O. Palmer Robertson teaches in his book The Israel of God that the land belongs in the same shadow category as animal sacrifices, and just as the sacrificial system has become redundant, the land similarly no longer functions as an inheritance. Yet whereas animal sacrifices are plainly annulled in Scripture (Heb. 10:18)—because it is Jesus’s atoning death that pays the penalty for sin—there’s no comparable annulment when it comes to the land. Its worship role has changed; its homeland role hasn’t.
Consider the following two statements made by the apostle Paul:
The God of this people Israel chose our fathers. . . . And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. (Acts 13:17, 19)
The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Rom. 11:29)
In the first statement, Paul the Jew identifies himself with his unbelieving Jewish audience (“our fathers”), and he speaks of Canaan as an inheritance given by God. In the second statement, which is explicitly about unbelieving Jews (see the preceding verse, Rom. 11:28), Paul says that God’s gifts are irrevocable. Taken together, these statements make it very difficult to argue that Canaan/Israel is no longer the inheritance of the Jewish people in God’s sight. Anyone making such a case would need to argue that a Jewish Christian is wrong to pray, “Thank you, Father, for restoring your people to our inheritance.” But where is the theological mistake in that prayer?
For most of the past 2,000 years, only a tiny proportion of the Jewish people remained in the land. The dispersal of the Jews from the land could be considered a second exile, resulting from their large-scale refusal to receive Jesus as Messiah (Luke 13:34–35; 19:41–44). But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large waves of Jewish immigration led to the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. For those who believe God gave the land irrevocably to ethnic Israel, such as most Jewish Christians, that date speaks of God’s chesed—his steadfast love for the Jewish people. But it’s important to recognize that many Palestinian Christians view the establishment of the State of Israel as their Nakba—their catastrophe. In the body of Christ, we can and should rejoice alongside those who rejoice while also weeping alongside those who weep (Rom. 12:15).
It shouldn’t surprise us that the land of Israel holds special significance in God’s sight, because it’s the place where he himself, in the person of his Son, was born, lived, died, and rose. His dealings with the land reveal his character and his power. We have a God who cares about borders, natural resources, topographical features, buried artifacts, human migration, geopolitical developments, and kept promises.